One Blog at a Time

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: January 2008

In January I pushed my computer a bit too hard and ended up having to reinstall the OS and all the software I use. Actually, it ended up being a lot less traumatic than I expected.

More importantly, I became an uncle again!


My sister Annabelle gave birth to a healthy 8lbs 2oz baby girl this morning. Mum and daughter are both doing fine, and so are Ed, Ché and Lela. Congratulations to all of them!


A year ago I read an article in the Guardian about the decline in quality of CD mastering. I even blogged about it. While researching some training material today I stumbled on a Wikipedia entry which brought me up to date on what's now known as the loudness war. It's a great term for the way newer releases of a record sound louder for the same volume setting on your music player, because record labels want their records to sound louder than everyone else's. They believe this makes them better in some way, as you'll see if you read the Guardian article.

Unfortunately, being one louder isn't necessarily the same as being one better. Loudness is achieved by using compression, which reduces the dynamic range of the recording. This has been taken to such extremes recently that the very highest sound levels get "clipped" because they exceed your player's ability to play them. This can make music sound distorted and buzzy, but even where I can't hear the distortion, I find that loud records just make listening very hard work. Loudness is counter-productive. I have albums at home that I just can't listen to all the way through. When there's no subtlety or dynamic range left, they become a bit of an onslaught.

The Wikipedia entry linked to a discussion about just how bad the mastering of CDs has got, and it makes for dismal reading. It starts off with an analysis of the mess that was made of the Muse album Black Holes and Revelations. The first track has been mastered so that by the time it reaches its crescendo, the signal has been completely overwhelmed: looking at a computer display of the waveform reveals a solid block of colour. The author of the article suggests that this could damage loudspeakers that are used to play it, even if the volume is within the limits that the player can normally cope with. Nice; I wonder what it does to your ears?

I agree with the comments in the article about The Queens of the Stone Age record: it's difficult to listen to it all in one go. I'd also like to see a waveform of the first Evanescence album - that's another CD I struggle with. The fact that the lyrics on that album are so unrelentingly dismal may have more than a little to do with this, of course. Perhaps I'll reserve judgement on that one.


I'm still putting stuff back on my PC. I've just got iTunes back up and running - it only took me two and a half hours...

One advantage of doing all this is that I get to discover that new versions of some of my favourite programs are out. I'm now running a much more up to date version of stuff like Filezilla, for instance.


If you used Google today, you are probably already aware that the LEGO brick is 50 years old today. Gizmodo's article is interesting reading, and a huge nostalgia trip for me because I was a huge LEGO nerd when I was a kid.


Meanwhile, over at The Atlantic, Walter Kirn is writing about the deleterious effects of multitasking. The verdict? Doing more than one thing at once is bad for you (especially if it involves using a mobile phone and driving a car). Multitasking, according to the article, impairs your ability to process or retain information. You may get several things done at once, but you won't be able to remember details about any of it and you won't have learn't anything new - unless you're Mr Kirn, in whose case "don't try using the phone while you're driving" definitely appears to have sunk in.


Astronomers have acquired radar images of asteroid 2007 TU24, which flies past us tomorrow. As a result, they have been able to get a much better idea of its size. It appears to be an irregular shape, but it's about 800 feet across.

It's just as well it's not going to hit us; a rock that size would make quite a mess. The sobering point is that it was only discovered in October last year, which wouldn't have given us much time to do anything about things if it had been heading straight for us.


Typical, isn't it? The only part of BBC3's output that I ever found to be consistently creative, entertaining and amusing is being dumped. Those orange animated characters used for the breaks where we find out what the channel will be showing next are being "retired." Not fair.


What was I saying about having fixed everything? Of course, that turned out not to be the case so eventually I decided it was time to reinstall my operating system. And that's pretty much what I've been doing all weekend. It took over two hours just to get started - 89 security updates later, I could put the OS to one side and start reinstalling software packages as well.

I had forgotten what a truly tedious job it is to put a system together. It's made worse by the fact that software packages these days are full of anti-piracy and anti-theft routines which vastly inflates the time taken to get them up and running. It's not so bad when you have to key in one or two twenty five or thirty character product keys, but when you have to do them one after another it gets very old, very quickly.

As of this evening, I have the majority of things back up as I want them, and my PC is booting in about a minute, rather than the ten minutes it was taking last week. That, at least, is an improvement.


After various tweaks, I appear to have a working system again, which hopefully means that you can now load the entire page rather than having it stop half way through an entry!


Another week goes by, and so does another large lump of rock. Near-Earth Asteroid 2007 TU24 will pass close to Earth at 8:33am (UT) on January 29th. If you live somewhere in America with dark clear skies and you have a decent telescope, you should be able to watch it as it passes by. "Close" in this context means it's going to be a bit further away than the Moon, even at its nearest point, but that's close indeed by astronomical standards. In fact, it's the closest approach for something this size that we know about until 2027. The "know about" bit is an important point, too, because there may well be rocks out there in similar orbits we don't know about. You don't need to worry about 2007 TU24, though; there's no chance of it hitting us this month.


I'm not sure why yet, but both my router and my PC are deeply unhappy about something. Updates are likely to be rather sporadic until I can get this fixed.


I really got in to listening to podcasts over Christmas. In particular, I've been enjoying the Codpaste
podcasts from Ergo and Phizmiz and People Like Us, as well as Ergo's own Phuj Phactory Podcast. They feature discussions between Vicky and Ergo about making the sound collages that feature extensively in their work, and there are entertaining mash-ups of bits of music that shouldn't go together, but do. You can listen to the previous shows in the Codpaste archive here and the Phuj Phactory archive here.

I can recommend Ergo's Transylvanian podcast, which is listed as being released on December 27th, although the copy on my iPod shows a date of January 3rd. Ergo takes us on a sound journey through Eastern Europe, encountering accordion players, gypsy violinists, Jingle Bells played on zithers, wolves with a penchant for potato crisps, and wooden spoon makers all neatly packaged up into a mind-expanding programme that lasts just under an hour. And it's yours for free!


The Telegraph must be struggling for news today. They've published the first mainstream media UFO report I've seen for *ages*. Mysterious lights have been seen in the sky in America. I liked this description: "Looking through the telescopic sights of his rifle, Ricky Sorrells, a machinist, said he saw a flat and seamless metallic object hovering about 300 feet over a field."

Er - the guy thinks he's got extraterrestrials in front of him, so he points a rifle at them? He just had to be from Texas, didn't he? This is just a suggestion, but if one day the ETs do arrive, make sure you're not standing next to Mr Sorrells.


After less than a week back at work after a nice break I'm already struggling to get a decent night's sleep. I'm really not in a cute and fluffy mode at the moment. Today's blog entry is likely to come across as really bitter and twisted, but given the context in which it was written I hope you'll understand why. Considering my current frame of mind it's hard to view Gordon Brown's recent pronouncements on the health service with anything other than bitter cynicism. This is a result of events over the last few days.

My father has been having heart problems for years, and has got little help from his local doctor. However, last summer he finally got to see a consultant who put him on a heart monitor for a week to see what was going on. The result? They discovered that every so often, Dad's heart was stopping. No wonder he felt ill.

So what happened next?


Nothing, for six months.

Nothing, until last Friday, when my father collapsed while taking the dog out. Luckily a neighbour came to his aid and called an ambulance. Dad had a fractured cheekbone and was covered in blood, and was taken to the local A&E department in Cromer. Did he get attention there? Of course not. They transferred him to a hospital in the Norwich area, which we won't name for the moment.

I was actually more concerned about him being admitted to this hospital than I was about the fact that he'd collapsed, because my mother told me that at least one of their neighbours died after mistakes made during surgical procedures carried out there. In six hours after he was admitted, nobody so much as offered him a drink of water. Eventually over the weekend a very apologetic consultant turned up. Dad was fitted with a pacemaker on Monday, and he is now home. He's lucky to be alive, and my opinion of healthcare in this country - particularly in East Anglia - has gone down the toilet.

As for government spin on health care, I'll leave my opinion of that to your imagination.


The BBC is running a story today about the fact that 2008 is the National Year of Reading.

Unfortunately the story is utter bollocks adopts a pretty negative tone, inviting the conclusion that reading books is no longer necessary to lead a productive life as we have The Web and newspapers (although I notice that there's no mention of television) to meet our information needs. Why would we need books as well? Victoria Beckham is given as an example of someone who is young, successful and rich despite never having read a book in her life. We are told that estate agents don't like showing people round houses full of books because they come across as stuffy and middle-aged (good grief! Who would want to appear like that?)

Here are some direct quotes from the article:

"So why don't more of us make use of these repositories of knowledge and, with so much information to be gleaned online and from the TV, do we need to read books any more? "

"Basically, not everyone is a natural reader. Books have also lost their "chic", according to some. "

"But while books have great cultural value, others argue that you don't have to read them to be intelligent and knowledgeable. "

You get the idea. I wonder who the elusive "some" is who have decreed that books aren't chic any more? Did somebody actually publish a study, or is this just journalistic shorthand for "I've decided that..."? Same goes for the "others" doing the arguing in the third quote. This is shoddy writing of the lowest order.

On the BBC News front page, the link to this story asks the question, "Do you have to read books to be clever these days?" The response the article invites us to give is "no." Fair enough: few people would suggest that cleverness is a function of reading books. It's quite possible to be clever and intelligent without reading vast quantities of books, even if these qualities aren't mentioned that often in articles about either of the Beckhams. The article misleads us by confusing the concept of someone who is clever and someone who is educated. The distinction is crucial, because it's education where reading really helps.

I've been a learning specialist for nearly thirty years and most of the experts in the field such as David Jonassen will tell you that intelligence is still the best indicator of whether or not somebody will be good at learning. Even if the jury is still out on the nature vs. nurture debate, most of the teachers I know (and I know a few) believe that, political correctness aside, the really clever children are clever because they're born that way.

For the rest of us, education is the way in which we can catch up. Reading books is still the most accessible, cost-effective way in which anyone can develop their thinking, their critical faculties, and their perception of the wider world. I'm sorry, but for me, the idea that the purpose of books is primarily to "add cultural value" sounds like the sort of half-baked concept that a recent media studies graduate might come up with: superficially impressive, but completely missing the point. Books help us to discover how everything works. Books help us to learn in deep, absorbing ways that just aren't supported by flipping through an article in a newspaper or reading something online.

The attitude that comes across in the BBC article doesn't just annoy me, though. It frightens me. Because the most important purpose of books is that they are powerful tools for spreading ideas. Books can allow you to access the inner thoughts of some of the world's greatest minds, both living and dead. Books have been used to enable regular people to gain access to privileged concepts and information for centuries. It's not surprising that book burning is one of the most long-lived methods for repressing unwelcome ideas amongst the population. There's a monument on a hill near where I live to William Tyndale, who was tortured to death by the Church because he published a bible in English (which everyday folk could read for themselves) rather than in Latin (where the content remained accessible only by the clergy, who had previously been free to interpret it as they saw fit - generally for their own benefit). Books can affect the development of the world, for good or bad (just think how different things might be if Das Kapital or Mein Kampf had never been written). Books can be a powerful instrument of empowerment and change. So when someone tries to convince me that I don't need to read them any more, I get very, very suspicious.


Remember last year I mentioned that the asteroid 2007 WD5 had a slight possibility of running into Mars at the end of this month? Over the last couple of weeks, additional observations have been made and the likelihood of the collision has been revised. On Monday the odds of an impact were 1 in 40, or 2.5%. On Wednesday, NASA's NEO Program Office announced that after making yet more measurements of the asteroid's path, the odds of a collision have dropped dramatically to 1 in 10,000. It doesn't look like it's going to happen, folks. I'm sure anyone on Mars would be breathing a sigh of relief.


Last year the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico was taken out of service for six months so it could undergo its first major refurbishment in forty years of use. When Robert Zemeckis filmed the science fiction movie Contact there in the 1990s the dish was so dirty that it had to be "cleaned up" using computer graphics. Now it has a fresh coat of real paint, but the refurbishment consisted of a lot more than that. The receiving equipment has been upgraded and now it's back on line - and it's generating far more data than ever before. As a result, the SETI@home project is looking for more participants. As their project scientist Dan Wertheimer says, "There are now 42 projects on BOINC, and, until now, there has been enough computing power to go around."

The problem is that the SETI search at Arecibo now generates 300 gigabytes of data a day, and they need a lot more volunteers to help process it on their home computers. Helping out is easy - you just download the latest BOINC client and attach to the SETI@home project. There are full details about what you need to do on the SETI@home website.


I spent quite a lot of time over the holidays getting back into music. It wasn't just the Stylophone that the twins bought me, either. The three of us spent a fair amount of time playing Guitar Hero on Rob's XBox, and once I'd got over the cognitive dissonance of not actually playing a real guitar, I had a lot of fun joining in. It's just as well we had the TV turned up, as what you actually sound like while you're playing isn't quite as entertaining.

I've already mentioned the new multitrack recorder I've bought myself - I've already used it to put one song together and I'm now working on a second. I never thought I'd say it, but despite the fact that I finally have decent dedicated hardware, Flavio Antonioli's nTrack software still plays an essential part in how I put things together. I registered a copy of version 4 a while ago (the software is now at version 5) and it is so useful for pasting loops and wav files together that there's no way I could do without it. The more heavily I use it, the better I like it.

So that the rest of the world can treat itself (hah!) to the aural spectacle of my musical endeavours, I've created a MySpace Artist page for the stuff I'm working on. I've called it Apopheniacs Anonymous in honour of the folk from the William Gibson Message Board. The first thing I've uploaded is a song that we've collaborated on: the vocals, drums and main guitar are by Splitcoil, based in Seattle. The bass is by Limulus, who comes from Lyon; I've done the keyboards and a few fill-in guitar parts, and the vocals in the bridge. The whole thing is rounded off by audio from the ArkanGLs who live in Paris. We've called it When The French Vacation and yes, a lot of the lyrics are references to various discussions on the WGB. The song streams when you visit the MySpace page, so why not toddle over and give our efforts a listen?


I was most amused to see a reference to the galaxy's wildest juvenile delinquents in this week's edition of Click Online on BBC News 24. Kate Russell was demonstrating a messaging website, and the message being typed in was "Marlon mind the oranges."

Alan Moore wrote D. R. & Quinch go to Hollywood for 2000AD at least twenty years ago, but it's nice to see the younger generation are keeping up with things.


I get the impression the folks at my ISP are still on holiday; so far I've been unable to update my web pages this year because Demon's FTP server isn't accepting connections. Still, if you're reading this they must have finally switched something or other back on...

Anyway, here we go once again. I hope you had a good holiday.

I've been busy visiting various parts of the country (I drove a thousand miles last week) catching up with various friends and relatives. I spent Christmas in Lytham seeing my aunts and cousin, which was great fun as always. There was lots of excellent food and drink, and several parties to go to. Less fun was the drive over to Norfolk after Boxing Day, which took five and a half hours. There's no direct route, and as a lot of the journey is on dual carriageways rather than motorways, progress is slow at the best of times. Add in some festive traffic jams on the M62 and it's a bit of a slog, so I was glad to arrive at Mum and Dad's place. My brother Dave and his family were there too, so I got to catch up with them all. It was nice to sit by a real log fire in the evenings although I had to make way for Herb, one of my parents' cats, who sits as close to the fire as he possibly can without bursting in to flames.

After a couple of days in Norfolk I headed over to Solihull to see in the New Year with Rebecca and the twins. I had a great time as always - and thanks to them for all the presents, too. I got home with an excellent selection of swag including a Rolf Harris Stylophone, an absolutely enormous cup and saucer which I have used for my breakfast coffee every day so far and a fine assortment of alcoholic beverages.


At the moment I'm back home having a few days r&r before I go back to work. I've spent most of the last couple of days recording music on a new digital multitracker I bought this week. Things have come a long way since my trusty Fostex X-15, which has four tracks recorded on to cassette tape. On my new machine I have thirty two basic tracks, each with eight virtual tracks, all recorded digitally on to a hard disk drive. I'm stunned by the quality of the results the thing can produce, and by how many things that used to require expensive outboard equipment are now built in and automated. For example, it's got better reverb than the dedicated unit I bought ten years ago: the "cathedral" setting in particular is luscious. Most tasks, like punching in, adding EQ or effects and mastering to a CD are a doddle. I'm really going to have fun with the thing.


While I was in Solihull, the twins showed me their pictures of the Christmas festivities (although there were no pictures of the panto they went to which was directed by my namesake - that's probably just as well). I'm pleased to see that they've been making use of their Flickr accounts too, as both Rob and Ruth have got an eye for an interesting photo. Keep up the good work, troops!